The Story of Chris Stapleton + Patty Loveless’ 2022 CMA Awards Performance, ‘You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive’
Chris Stapleton did it again! The singer's 2022 CMA Awards performance is the most talked about moment from the show, just like it was seven years ago. This time the reclusive Patty Loveless stepped on stage to help him win the night.
Performing "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" with Stapleton's wife Morgane nearby, the artists delivered the kind of performance that left all their contemporaries standing and cheering. One recalled Keith Urban whipping his cell phone out to capture the CMA performance of "Tennessee Whiskey" so many years ago as he — and so many more — rose to recognize a special performance.
Loveless doesn't perform often, but she clearly knows how to hold a crowd of any size in the palm of her hand.
"You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" is a song with a special history. Most know it as a Loveless song, but Brad Paisley actually cut it for his Part II album in 2001 and others took a try after her version was released that same year. Darrell Scott ("Long Time Gone," "It's a Great Day to Be Alive") wrote it, and to fully appreciate where it came from, you have to go back nearly a century.
Talking to Kentucky Country Music in October 2020, Scott explained how his family has called Kentucky and Harlan County home for 200 years. One year, he and his father went searching for more information about his great-grandfather, about whom little was known. They checked out libraries and then graveyards, with the poetic songsmith noting that the sun seemed to rise at one cemetery around 10AM each day, and set at 3PM. One grave marker even read, "You'll never leave Harlan alive." It all became part of the song.
"In the deep dark hills of eastern Kentucky / That's the place where I trace my bloodline / And it's there I read on a hillside gravestone / You'll never leave Harlan alive."
Harlan County is the heart of coal country, which explains why a certain batch of artists find it so appealing and meaningful. Loveless, Paisley, Montgomery Gentry, Kathy Mattea — they all grew up in coal country, or close by. Each artist recorded this song because for them, these words hit different:
"No one ever knew there was coal in them mountains / Til a man from the northeast arrived / Wavin' hundred dollar bills, said, I'll pay you for your minerals / But he never left Harlan alive."
"I played banjo on Patty Loveless’ version," Scott told KCM. "In fact, she was having a hard time getting it and her husband, Emory, was producing the album. He kept telling her that she wasn’t getting the song. He left and came back with a photo of Patty’s dad, who was a coal miner, and placed it on the music stand. Emory told her to sing the song to her father and that is exactly what she did and what you hear."
The version heard at the 2022 CMA Awards most closely matches her version from Mountain Soul.
Scott's version first appeared on his own Aloha From Nashville album in 1997, and for the most part the lengthy ballad remained nationally anonymous until last month. That's when Stapleton played the Kentucky Rising flood relief show, bringing Loveless — who is largely retired — out for the song.
Country fans 25 years old and younger can be forgiven for not knowing about Loveless, but she was a radio staple for a decade in the late 1980s and '90s. Songs like "Blame It on Your Heart," "Chains," and "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" hit No. 1, and many more cracked the Top 10. In 1996, Loveless won the CMAs Female Vocalist of the Year award. Her last album (Mountain Soul II, 2009) won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album in 2011).